LONDON — Prime Minister John Major's ruling Conservatives are offering Britain's most sweeping anticrime measures of this century as the cutting edge of their bid to stay in power for another five years after next May's general election.
In the fourth substantial reorganization of Britain's criminal justice system in eight years, Mr. Major's Home Secretary Michael Howard is calling on Parliament to back moves to impose American-style mandatory jail sentences for those found guilty of drug dealing, crimes of violence (including rape), and multiple burglaries.
Anyone convicted of a second serious sexual or violent offense would get an automatic life sentence, Mr. Howard told the House of Commons. And prison governors would have less freedom to reduce sentences for good behavior.
The harsh terms of the crime bill, which will be debated in the next few weeks, suggest that Major and other leading Conservatives, whose party has ruled Britain for 17 years, have decided that election campaigning has already begun.
Normally British election campaigns start only a few weeks before polling day, but with the Conservative government's tiny majority in Parliament, and its opponents' success in opinion polls, the contest is already under way.
Howard told the House of Commons Friday that the new anticrime measures, if approved, will require 12 extra prisons to be built at a cost of L3 billion ($4.8 billion). But the Conservatives' law-and-order package, foreshadowed in last week's speech to Britain's lawmakers by Queen Elizabeth II, has been heavily criticized by judges and penal-reform groups.
Lord Donaldson, a recently retired senior judge, says the measures would "produce gross injustice." He complains that introducing mandatory sentencing, such as the policy in effect in the US, would "create great inflexibility and therefore great unfairness" in the legal system.
A representative of the Howard League for Prison Reform, which works for more humane conditions for prison inmates, derides the measures as being "misplaced" and "likely to do more harm than good".
BUT the Labour Party opposition said it would "study the fine print" before passing judgment. Labour, like the ruling Conservative Party, has ranked law and order high among the issues on which it wants to fight the general election campaign. Jack Straw, home secretary in Labour's shadow cabinet, said Saturday the Conservative Home Secretary had "stolen some of Labour's own clothes" in writing the new crime bill. He refused to say whether Labour would back the bill when it came to the vote.
Home Ministry officials say the legislators are merely responding to the prevailing public mood. Last week, before the government unveiled the bill, all main political parties said they supported calls for a higher morality in public life and in the behavior of ordinary citizens. A document prepared by the Roman Catholic Conference of Bishops in England and Wales called for the "reassertion of common values" in British society.
As they struggle to dominate the moral high ground in the escalating political debate, Major and Labour opposition leader Tony Blair appear to be trying to outdo each other in insisting on the need for an ethically based society and a crackdown on crime.
In the longer term, the impact of Howard's policies on prisons is likely to become a cause of great controversy.
Britain's prison population in 1980 was about 50,000. It currently stands at 62,000. If the new measures are brought in, Howard told the Commons, the number of those in jail would rise by another 11,000 in a few years.
Howard's officials estimate the extra cost of his new, tougher stance on crime would be about $640,000 per year. But Lord Donaldson, who says he has made his own analysis, estimates that prison populations could rise by 25,000 if Howard's bill becomes law.